South Korean media reported last October that the number of defectors from North Kore exceeded thirty thousand. The report coincided with my interview with Oh Sung-cheol, who was wrapping up his exhibition in gallery Art World in southwest Seoul.
Titled ‘Strangers on the border,’ it was a group show by Oh and two other artists from North Korea. Wearing thick-rimmed glasses, a checkered shirt under a slightly oversized cardigan, and a pair of jeans, he seems perfectly assimilated. His work, however, raw in color and in presentation, tells a different story.
PAINTER ON DUTY
Growing up in South Pyongan Province, Oh did not pursue formal academic training in art, though he had both interest and talent. His “impure background” – two of his uncles were executed as political prisoners – prevented him anyway from entering art schools run by the government.
It was when he started his mandatory ten years in the military that a senior official saw his talent could be put to use: painting government propaganda. After a year-long training, he was good to go, and began painting countless posters and slogans for occasions such as national holidays and Kim Jong Il’s birthdays.
“From painting posters down to making glues, everything was done manually,” he says. “I wouldn’t call them art. It was simply thinking and doing things as ordered by the party. It was not my ideas.”
He finished his military service in 2003 and went on to study engineering in university. After graduation, he began working in China.
“I got to see and experience different things while abroad. After about two years, I began to think about how I could live my life fully,” says Oh. “I did not even imagine of becoming a painter at that time, though.”
He called on a South Korean consulate in China and told them he intended to defect, not knowing what awaited him. Since his credentials and backgrounds were neither verified nor screened by National Intelligence Service, he was forced to stay in the basement of the embassy building indefinitely.
It was when he started his mandatory ten years in the military that a senior official saw his talent could be put to a use: painting government propaganda
“To be honest, that was the toughest part of my life, what made me go on at that time was drawing,” he says. “I started little by little and ended up really getting into it. I guess that is when I determined that I would become an artist if I go to South Korea.
“If it was not for drawing, I would have gone mad while living for three years in the basement with next to no exposure to the sunlight, no exchange with other people… My biggest wish back then? Walking on a patch of grass with my bare feet.”
STRANGER ON THE BORDER
When he finally entered South Korea in 2012, Oh knew that all he wanted to do was become an artist. He is now studying fine art at Hannam University with classmates over ten years younger than himself.
His background as a defector is less unique now, as a few North Korean artists have come to media attention in recent years with their satirical criticisms of the dictatorial regime in the segregated country.
“It is right to call wrong what is wrong” says Oh. His works, on the other hand, focus more on “posing questions” based on his experiences on both sides of the peninsula.
In his main body of work, “Spoon Series,” he uses the tool we use to feed ourselves to draw portraits of our lives: how people are turned into tools to pursue something, often to the detriment of themselves. Burnished spoons that are intact, twisted or crushed into pieces stare back at the viewers until they see their own reflections on them.
As much as he was tired of copying posters in North Korea, Oh says he’s experienced all kinds of “nonsense” living as an artist in South Korea: arts and humanities departments in universities closing down because of the low employment rate of the students and artists being asked to pay galleries to participate in art fairs, to name a few.
“In North Korea, you have to fawn over the authority in order to live,” he says. “Here it seems like money is on top of everything, even the president. This society made a class system based on money.
“Whether in the South or in the North, I hope we would be able to pursue higher common values that are of our rationality not of greed.”
FRAMES AND STEREOTYPES
His art might not be the most fashionable in presentation but it reflects a strong desire to get a message across, which is why he gets frustrated by questions like “Is your work realist or expressionist?”
“I realized people here tend to judge an artwork based on its stylistic category instead of seeing it as it is,” he replies. “Classicism, impressionism, expressionism, dadaism – all these are concepts constructed by people. Do I have to fit myself into frames created by others?”
“It is right to call wrong what is wrong”
He notices a similar pattern of categorizing when living in South Korea as a defector.
“I understand people are all self-centric but in order to truly understand others, you have to acknowledge them as who they are instead of forcing your views onto them.”
Defectors in South Korea get generous financial support during their settling period, however, media reports citing figures submitted by Ministry of Unification say their suicide rate is growing annually.
“You have to first treat them as people and acknowledge that they can be different from you. Helping them or not helping them comes after that.”
For Oh, reunification seems to represent breaking down of walls, both physical and psychological. It is also the reason he chooses to stay in-between for the meantime.
When asked whether he wants to return to North Korea when it happens, Oh answers with a definite yes. “What I do not like is the dictatorial system. It is not that I do not like the country or the people… I could also play the role of persuading people in the North and bringing down their stereotypes about South Korea.”
“(Reunification) should not be about a political game or administrative process. Isn’t it simply being able to go home freely?”
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